I’m currently living in Seoul, South Korea. Yes, I must be living the dream, aren’t I? Thousands of K-pop and K-drama fans would probably die to be in my shoes right now, what with Korean pop idols in such proximity. And while I do really love it here in Seoul, there is one prevailing cultural norm that I can’t quite seem to shake. It comes at you when you are trying socialize and meet new people, it comes at you when you’re a new employee at a company, and it basically thrusts itself in your path, should you want to advance socially in Korea. If you haven’t guessed it by now, what I’m talking about is the drinking culture.
In America, I was skeptical of the college drinking culture – the constant inebriation of new and green college students, getting drunk and wasted every weekend just for the sake of it. However, here in Korea, the drinking culture is in no way taboo, and in fact, you simply cannot get away from it. Here, friends drink beer and soju over fried chicken or a light meal, they drink over BBQ, they drink casually at bars, morning, afternoon, and night. It seems that the only way for Koreans to loosen up and have fun is to have a couple of drinks. Which is fine – unless they force you to drink.
The reason I’m mentioning all of this is that in Korean dramas, you can see this drinking culture pretty clearly. The classic scenario is where a fresh and often naive heroine gets a new job, and is required to go to a business dinner, which almost always requires her to drink more than she can handle. If she stands by her morals and limits and decides not to drink, she is immediately viewed as weak and co-workers will even ostracize her. If she caves and drinks, even though she knows it is beyond her physical limits, the deed is not considered a considerable feat, and she receives almost no accolades for it.
I’m currently watching and reviewing the MBC weekend drama A Thousand Kisses, and in episode 13, the heroine, Joo-young, is bullied into drinking much greater than her limit by her department head (Han Yoo-kyung, portrayed by Cha Soo-yun), who despises her for being the woman that Woo Bin (her ex-boyfriend) loves. In fact, Han Yoo-kyung forces Joo-young to drink so much she nearly passes out. Wow, what a great way to make a new employee suffer. Han Yoo-kyung, you are really a good-for-nothing person. Personally, I don’t enjoy alcohol and I dislike it greatly when people push or force me to drink. I think deciding to drink or not should be a personal choice, decided based on alcohol tolerance level and whether one simply prefers to drink or abstain.
However, in Korea, the culture is that if you go attend some kind of social event, and if an elder gives you alcohol, you cannot refuse it or else you will be perceived as rude. I don’t see why someone’s choice not to drink should reflect negatively on her as a person, a member of the community, or as an employee.
This age-old cultural and social custom is shown clearly and very often in Korean dramas. In Protect the Boss, heroine Noh Eun-seol (Choi Kang-hee) gets a really sketchy job in which she and the other newly-hired employee (a young girl like herself) have to please and serenade the creepy boss in a weird mix of a bar and a private love motel (they really do exist in Korea). Fortunately, Eun-seol is a strong, independent character, so she doesn’t take that crap. But seriously, creepy male bosses use this ‘drinking cultural tradition’ to get closer to female employees. That’s more than enough reason for me to dislike this ‘tradition.’
By the way, that green bottle from the A Thousand Kisses stills is soju, the national drink of South Korea. Because soju is so cheap (a bottle is approximately a dollar at convenient stores) and strong (one bottle easily gets the average person pretty drunk), it is consumed often at dinner, bars, and as pre-gaming for clubbing. You seriously cannot walk into any street in Korea without seeing people have that conspicuous green bottle in hand. Many people say that soju tastes like rubbing alcohol, and I am inclined to agree. That’s why people tend to do soju shots instead of downing the entire bottle in one go. Like drinkers of other nationalities, Koreans consume beer freely, but since it is more expensive than soju, soju is always ordered as a side drink.
Considering that most of you probably want to visit South Korea sometime in the future (to visit your favorite k-pop stars or actors), you will most likely have to get used to soju and the drinking culture in general. Even though it is intimidating at first, you will find ways to get around drinking too much if it is not your cup of tea. I know people who pretend to drink at company dinners and actually dump the alcohol. I am far too meek to do something deceitful like that, but it’s not a bad idea if you can pull it off.
The drinking culture is prevalent in South Korea, and this manifests itself often it its films and dramas. Does the amount of alcohol and the pressure to drink in dramas concern you? Or is it nothing compared to the drinking culture in your hometown?